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In Memoriam: Matsuo Bashō

In Uncategorized on October 12, 2012 at 12:00 am

It was a marvelous coincidence:

I recently finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Bashō, the great Japanese poet. Bashō is a colossus of Japanese literature, but he was also a pretty ordinary guy who wandered around Japan on foot. He hiked dangerous roads, slept on the ground, and wrote haiku. He was depressive, and he expected to die at the hands of vagabonds or sickness. But the more he roamed, the more Bashō’s spirits rose. For several years, Bashō has inspired both my writing and daily life. I had read excerpts, but never his seminal work. The Narrow Road has no equivalent in Western lit, but you might say it’s the Canterbury Tales of Tokugawa Japan.

It just happens that Bashō died on Oct. 12, 1694, according to translator Nobuyuki Yuasa. It seemed incredible that I would finish his book, cover to cover, on almost the exact date that he died. Then I double-checked and was disappointed to discover that the Internet disagrees with Yuasa, claiming that he died on Nov. 28.

No matter. In honor of the master poet, a humble offering:

After Bashō

Pages flip—

their breeze scented

with ancient ink

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Rock On

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2012 at 8:41 pm

My latest video collaboration, filmed yesterday:

Seasoned climber Bill Holman shows off some of his favorite walls — right in the middle of the city. Pittsburgh becomes Holman’s personal playground in this hometown tour.

The Return of the Lazy Mob Movie

In Uncategorized on September 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Today, I saw the trailers for two different mob movies, Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly. Both trailers have their funny lines, Oldies soundtracks, and flashes of firearms. They look, in many ways, identical—a bunch of famous actors, with nothing left to prove, wander around Gangland looking badass. They reassess old relationships, and either Christopher Walken or Brad Pitt is assigned to kill the main character. One movie belongs to Roadside Attractions, the other to five different studios.

Back in the 1990s, all anybody could make was lazy mobster movies. We had no drama in our Clinton-era lives, and screenwriters knew that shootouts and sex were essential to a successful movie. So Hollywood made The Mexican, Analyze ThisThe LimeySnake EyesPaybackThe Long Kiss GoodnightBangkok DangerousHard EightLast Man StandingRoninGhost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiSuicide Kings, Boondock SaintsGrosse Pointe Blank, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, plus untold others.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore some of these films, and a few are Sunday afternoon favorites. But they’re not exactly movies about the mob. The mob just makes them interesting. If Grosse Pointe Blank didn’t feature an assassin evading hit-men, it would look like the last act of Our Town. Without organized crime, The Mexican would be about Brad Pitt’s car breaking down in Mexico and James Gandolfini being gay. Analyze This would be a real-time therapy session with a middle-aged man, but not starring Gabriel Byrne, who, in turn, would only be a washed-up businessman in The Usual Suspects. Take away the witty sociopaths, and Guy Ritchie would actually cease to exist.

Some movies are about the mob, but they are rarer. Serious films like Donnie Brasco and Gomorrah don’t come around often, but when they do, they open up a frightening and psychologically complicated world. They are not just a bunch of white guys in black leather jackets standing around with shotguns. Whether you lean toward The Godfather or Goodfellas, these are the stories that make the mob real. Maybe Stand Up Guys will win everybody a round of Oscars. It doesn’t come out till January, after all, and anything could happen. But I doubt 100 Stand Up Guys could stand up to one minute of City of God.

The problem with lazy mob movies is that they’re easy—easier than the most generic CIA movies, which have taken Hollywood by storm. Mobsters don’t have a protocol. They don’t follow traditional laws, so they improvise, often creatively. They’re usually men, and men with a lot of personality. As a rule, they’re not Black Belts or computer whizzes or even well traveled. Usually, they’re just working-class guys who can shoot straight. Any actor who can suppress a smile and pull a trigger can play a mobster. The caricature is so routine, the audience barely flinches at the broken fingers and ridiculous names. So they call him Lucky? Wow, didn’t see that one coming.

“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own,” murmurs Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly.

Oh, God. So much for Hollywood’s Prince of Peace.

We got a break from lazy mobster movies because terrorism and spy thrillers took their place. Who wants to meddle with a bunch of no-account bank robbers when Jack Bauer is saving the world? After September 11th, even Tony Soprano looked annoyed that he was stuck in a mob show—the greatest mob saga of all time, mind you. Hollywood shifted its attention toward spies and law enforcement, lawyers and vigilantes, the folks who stop mobsters, not the mobsters themselves. It’s hard to say whether thug-comedies like Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly will revive this mediocre little genre, but I’m not thrilled about that prospect. I love me some Boondock Saints, but if they ever get around to making Playing God II, Bobby I’s is gonna break some fingers.

The Myth of Job Creation

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Predictably, TV attack ads have soured. They started hostile, and they grow meaner by the day. You can’t view YouTube without seeing President Obama, and you can’t turn on the evening news without seeing Romney. But the most childish mudslinging is also the most misleading: Who, they ask, has created more jobs?

Let’s get one thing straight: Politicians don’t “create” jobs. Indeed, nobody “creates” jobs. Jobs aren’t some raw material waiting to be smelted. Nobody waves a magic wand so that jobs appear in a burst of light. “Job creation” is among the most misleading buzz-idioms in the political bullshit lexicon. Set aside whether Obama or Romney had anything to do with a new job existing, or an old job vanishing. Creating jobs is a myth, and too many people accept it.

Which is absurd, because everybody knows how jobs come into existence. A quick summary:

  1. There is supply and demand. Someone needs a product or service, and someone else can supply a product or service.
  2. But the provider can’t do the work alone. There’s simply too much to be done.
  3. So s/he decides how the work should be allocated, draws up a budget, and hires people to divvy up the labor.

At no point does a politician personally enter a warehouse or Costco and say, “Oh, my, it seems you need some jobs here, don’t you?” Never does a governor’s enchanted unicorn stomp the dust until a 401K appears.

What politicians do do is encourage or discourage development in certain sectors, by supporting or not supporting certain bills and initiatives. But keep in mind that the “politician” is actually a cohort of aides and advisors, and “supporting or not supporting” certain “bills and initiatives” is a hurricane of lunches, meetings, conference calls, backroom deals, and more lobbyists than you or I could imagine. In other words, the politician behaves like a businessperson, weighing costs and benefits. Helping out-of-work citizens find employment is a nice side effect of a bull economy, but mostly the politician just wants to get re-elected, and if John Q. gets a cubicle job after three years on welfare, the politician looks good. But the only job the politician really cares about creating is his or her own.

Meanwhile, an attack ad never indicates what kinds of jobs these politicians have “created.” As far as we know, Romney or Obama “created” 50,000 minimum-wage food-service jobs, with no benefits, limited sick days, and no possibility of advancement, which all take place in an office park in Lowell, Massachusetts. For all we know, half these jobs were taken by people who already have jobs, but they can’t keep up with their mortgages, because they purchased their crummy little houses in increasingly dangerous neighborhoods through a predatory lender. Taking a second job at a Taco Bell to make ends meet doesn’t sound as compelling as “50,000 jobs created,” but if a politician helped developers rezone that land into the office park that made the Taco Bell possible—well, it looks good at the polls.

Americans are constantly told, these days, that they should just be happy to have a job. Unfortunately, this is accurate. A harsh truth about the American way of life is that our society has no obligation whatsoever to help you find employment. Our safety nets (free clinics, homeless shelters, food banks) exist only to make sure you don’t actually die in the street, which would embarrass politicians who are trying to get re-elected.

But when politicians “create” jobs, they often support sectors that are risky, short-term, or environmentally destructive. Take my neighboring state: Tens of thousands of West Virginians work as strip-miners. The money is decent (for now), it’s relatively skilled (heavy machinery is involved), but the work is finite, and the toxic run-off will make entire regions of West Virginia uninhabitable. A politician could say that s/he “created” 10,000 mining jobs, but once the last mountain is razed, what will all those workers do? They’ll stand in line, like everybody else, and probably in another state.

So let’s not be fooled into believing that “job creation” is anything but a rhetorical tactic. No politician can claim to invent jobs out of the ether, and the social reality of those jobs is usually dubious or even tragic. The politicians who claim to “create” jobs almost never conceived of them, much less worked out the logistics of hiring and execution. If anything, the politician listened to some seedy businesspeople, nodded, made some speeches, and signed a piece of paper. This does not make you a saint. It doesn’t even guarantee you humanity.

Tomorrow Night: “One Million Elephants,” a Show About Laos

In Laos on April 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Tomorrow night, I perform One Million Elephants. It’s my one-man-show. Just me onstage. Telling a story. Just a backpack, a steamer trunk, some photographs—and an inordinate number of tennis balls.

I have waited two years for this moment. Well, not waited. From the time I learned about the bombing in Laos to this moment, two years have passed, but they’ve been eventful years—the first year, I spent looking for funding. I took every avenue I could think of. I solicited every grant, fellowship program, university, and well-heeled friend I could muster. None of them could help me. “It’s a great idea,” people said. “But it just doesn’t fit our mission.” Or: “It sounds amazing, but you’re not a resident of Minnesota.” Or: “It doesn’t really have any impact on the greater Pittsburgh community, since we don’t have any Laotian people, so your story about a secret bombing campaign that took the lives of tens of thousands of people is basically irrelevant to us.”

(The only reason I went at all: My parents gave me plane-fare to Bangkok as a graduation gift. That, and my grandfather’s watch. Obviously my grandfather’s watch is the more treasured gift, but both were profoundly thoughtful).

The second year I spent (a) plotting my trip to Laos, which most people only half-understood and thought was completely insane, (b) traveling to Laos, and (c) putting together this 90-minute monologue.

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Through it all, my friends Don DiGiulio and Tressa Glover have shown unwavering faith in the project. Don recently described the project as “an idea we shared over beers.” That’s about it. We had enjoyed great success with The Archipelago, my first one-man-show, and they basically commissioned One Million Elephants before I’ve even booked my flights.

What has happened in the past week defies description—Don, my director, has taken a loose, somewhat sloppy narrative and boiled it pure. Last night, we rehearsed for several hours, perfecting some of the more meandering scenes. I have always known that the story of Laos is engaging and important. But Don has clipped the dead wood, filled in the blanks, and now, I can say with pride, this show is fucking awesome.

Let me say that again: This show is fucking awesome.

When The Archipelago went up, I described it as “my favorite thing I’ve ever done.” Which is saying a lot. But it’s likely that One Million Elephants will surpass it. Tomorrow, it all comes together—people finally get to see what I’ve been up to all this time. I get to talk about Vong the guide, Thanh the waiter-monk, Chaola the mysterious woman, Ted the ESL teacher, and the indelible “English Frenchman.” I get to describe the medieval city of Luang Prabang, the nightlife of Vientiane, and Phonsavan, the city made of war-scrap.

Tomorrow, at long last, the elephants march.

(One Million Elephants performs April 20 & 21, Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. 8 p.m. both nights. $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Tickets at Showclix).

My Artist’s Statement

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

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Above: Photographs described in artist’s statement (below)

As many know, I am currently enrolled in Flight School, a brilliant program that trains up-and-coming artists (like me) to be better businesspeople. Since right-brained creative types tend to also be flaky, scattered and overwrought (guilty!), Flight School is training me in business models, budgeting, time-management, and proposal-writing. It’s ridiculously fun, and the effects have been immediate and profound.

One of our guest-speakers, Sherrie Flick, assigned us an “artist’s statement” as homework. I’ve known Sherrie, tangentially, for many years, and I’ve always loved her writing, but her assignment gave me pause. An artist’s statement? I’ve written countless bios, proposals, pitches and queries, but I’m almost never asked to write an actual statement describing “my work.” It’s so rare that I think of the phrase “my work” only in quotation marks, because it seems too epic to contemplate. (It’s this kind of false modesty that Flight School is trying to shatter).

Since I work in a variety of media, I figured it was shrewdest to focus on only one—and because artist’s statements are most commonly found in galleries, photography seemed to fit best. I invented, in my mind, a series of large-format street-photography prints, much like my show at ModernFormations last year. (Granted, I wrote the artist’s statement for that as well, but because it was a dual-show, I was really writing it for both of us).

Here’s what I came up with:

Artist’s Statement

Robert Isenberg specializes in street photography, a blend of improvisational travel and photojournalism, which he dubs his “great collaboration with the world.” His photographs are mostly candid, un-posed, and taken in public places.

As a native of rural Vermont and longtime stage performer, Isenberg approaches subjects with both innocence and brash energy. Taken together, his photo essays illustrate people and places most likely unfamiliar to the viewer. Following in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Charles “Teenie” Harris, Isenberg offers moments that are workaday yet unrepeatable.

In many portraits, such as “Bosnians Are Cute” and “Girl with Bomb,” the scene is both surprising and explicit. His titles are clinically descriptive, allowing the images to speak for themselves. In many photographs, such as “Family, Luxor,” or “Old Woman, Sarajevo,” Isenberg dissolves expectations about a region or culture, documenting instead the mix of traditional lifestyles and globalized influence. Many of his titles tinker with narrative, such as “Secret Agent, Egypt,” giving viewers only a hint of the photograph’s context. Isenberg is magnetized to places that have suffered large-scale trauma, such as war, natural disaster, and economic collapse.

My Secret Life as a DIY Publisher

In Pittsburgh on March 5, 2012 at 2:56 pm

When I woke up this morning, Lulu.com was advertising a sale: A full 20% off everything on their site. Usually I delete these notifications. I’m not a compulsive shopper. Most of my friends are not compulsive shoppers. But Lulu peddles a different kind of stock: They are a DIY publisher, and I am responsible for four of their books.

Four books? you might exclaim. When did you have time to write four books?

I should clarify that I only wrote two of these volumes, although I’m very proud of them. When I discovered Lulu in 2006, I decided to dabble in DIY publishing. In the past, the world reviled “vanity presses,” both for the con artists that ran them and their clientele of desperate weirdos. But print-on-demand has jumbled the rules. Lulu’s quality is excellent. Set-up fees can be scraped out of a glove compartment. And Lulu has seeped into giant distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, just like any other publisher.

So I played around. I wanted to give handsome gifts, and I wanted to see what my words looked like as custom-made paperbacks. When my first experiment arrived in the mail, my jaw dropped. It looked like any other book. And when an actual press published a version of my first book, The Iron Mountain, in 2007, and I frowned, because I preferred my own (except for all the typos, the downside of line-editing one’s own prose).

I’m not the only author who’s fond of Lulu. When one of my Pittsburgh heroes, John Edgar Wideman, used Lulu to publish his short-story collection Briefs, the site gained an acclaimed new champion. Lulu may not replace larger publishers, but experimental authors have found a powerful new tool.

My Lulu Books

 So what are these four titles?

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The first is The Legend of Pangkor, one of my favorite early achievements. Pangkor is a collection of stories and essays I wrote in my mid-twenties, about all kinds of things—a heroin-addict I dated, a massage in Vietnam, a rare game of golf, life as a bike messenger, and the resplendent landscape of Iceland. The title essay is, and may always be, my very favorite story, about getting lost in the Malaysian jungle on my 21st birthday. They’re clearly the works of a young, self-edited writer, a Pittsburgh beatnik with many roommates and lots of half-baked dreams, but as my Mom said, it’s full of surprises.

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The second volume is Light, and Other Plays, and I absolutely love this collection. IfPangkor is a fun experiment, Light is much more serious—these were my best one-act plays, at least the time of publication. I have since written and staged several new one-acts, but these are the formative pieces, the stuff that really defined me as a playwright (I know, who but an Arthur Miller says “the stuff that defined me as a playwright”? Just go with it). I absolutely love how this turned out. I even love the cover. When I showed it to my publishing professor, Mike Simms, at Chatham University, he described it as “beautiful.” Six months later, Simms published my actual book, The Archipelago.

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The other two projects are a little more eccentric: I put together a collection of my friend’s plays, Purgatoriography, for that same publishing class. Let me put it this way: Joe Lyins is, without question, the funniest man I have ever personally known, and his plays are sheer joy. With titles like The Unbearable Lightness of Eating, these plays make me want to vacation in Joe’s head. The fact that we’re veteran comedy partners and he’s one of my closest friends biases my opinion, but not much.

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Finally, there’s A Moment in Time. This book helped save my sanity, for unexpected reasons: I had to take an intro-to-journalism course in 2011, because it was the only class that fulfilled my final MFA requirements. Because I had already worked as a freelance journalist for 10 years, I felt that an “intro” class was a little superfluous. Luckily, Abby Mendelson is a really cool guy and a fun instructor, and my classmates were all wonderful people. To keep from nodding off in class, I offered to collect their nonfiction features into an anthology—a kind of post-class gift. No one was more enthusiastic than Abby, who bought several copies for friends and colleagues. A Moment in Time is no contendor for the Peabody Award, but it was fun to put together. And I’m fond of the cover photo, which (a) I shot in Phipps Conservatory, and (b) flaunts the Steelers’ black-and-gold, which is always a nice wink-nudge to Pittsburghers.

There were other works as well, smaller and less presentable, and I have since taken them down. Even a DIY publisher must be choosey. But I’m delighted that some still float around the internet, waiting to be read. Sometimes I think of them as cute little projects. Other times I think, These aren’t half bad.

Especially at 20% off.

Word Circus

In Pittsburgh on February 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm

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Prologue

This entry ends happily. But first, some bellyaching.

The Gist

Last night, I attended the Word Circus reading at Most Wanted Fine Art. The basic idea is that Word Circus is a free monthly event that showcases Chatham MFA students. I am beholden to Word Circus, because I helped create it, along with fellow MFAer Sarah Leavens and gallery owner Jason Sauer. We wanted to host something free, open, hospitable, and, above all, fun to attend.

I finished my program last May. I no longer emcee Word Circus. And the reading was scheduled for a Friday night. Not ideal circumstances.

Plus, I’ve been going through a minor crisis lately. Minor, but a crisis nonetheless. The last thing I wanted to do was relive grad school memories when I could be watching “Downton Abbey” with my cats.

Yes, PBS with cats. This is what winter does to me.

A Controversial Note About Readings

As a card-carrying member of the Pittsburgh literati, I’ve started to dread “readings.” The more I attend, the more frustrated I become. Writers can be a cliquey bunch, poets in particular. Granted, I say this as a part-time thespian—I know there is no pastime more socially unforgiving than theatre. But writers can be an awkward, hang-wringing bunch, and their secret alliances and backstabbing insults can seem particularly passive-aggressive.

Mischief aside, there is something particularly miserable about a bad poetry reading.

To start, most people attend because they feel they have to. They are obligated, by friendship or by class assignment, to show up at some auditorium and listen to writers read aloud. As a rule, Americans don’t read much, and they’re fatally allergic to poetry. Writers know this, and they respond in one of two (inadvisable) ways: They clam up and get embarrassed, or they get arrogant and hostile.

A bad reading is fairly predictable: (1) The microphone doesn’t work, and nobody knows how to fix it. (2) The emcee does not introduce him/herself. (3) The emcee mumbles, makes inside-jokes that nobody understands, says “Umm” very loudly to make up for a derailed thought, goes off on some personal tangent that nobody cares about, and generally “wings it” as if the audience isn’t there. (4) The writers arrive at the microphone and tell some longwinded, unrehearsed anecdote about a mentor or ex or extremely controversial political agenda, alienating anyone they don’t personally know. (5) The writer reads in that “poet voice”: They READ… as IF… the LAST… syllaBLES… are THE… most imPORTant… PART… in the SENTence… and ALways… END… in a question MARK? (6) At the intermission, most people knock back a cup of cheap wine and leave. (7) For the open mic, each writer gets up and stumbles through a long and hackneyed introduction, mostly apologizing for how terrible their poem is going to be, because they “don’t think it’s very good.” They make statements like, “Don’t worry, it’s short,” or “You can hate it if you want to,” statements that make me want to break the face of whoever made these people hate themselves so much. (8) Everyone sits there, bored and exhausted, wishing that the whole experience would end. Some assholes start whispering and passing notes, or even (I’ve seen this a lot) holding conversations in the back in a normal tone of voice, as if no one else is in the room. (9) Everything abruptly ends. The emcee says, “Okay, that’s it.” (10) Just as everyone has grabbed their coats and headed for the door, desperate for fresh air, the emcee runs to the microphone (which is already turned off), and adds, “Oh, and SIGN OUR MAILING LIST!”

A Controversial Note About “Supporting the Arts”

What makes matters worse is that people feel obligated to “support the arts.” Don’t get me wrong: People should support the arts. They should donate to Public Radio, they should attend gallery crawls, and they should read local literature. This should be obvious to anyone. But artists should also make it worth their while. If gold-hearted patrons show up to 10 lousy readings, and they grudgingly smile through one mumbled, self-involved poem after another, they will think that lousy readings are normal.

Artists need to earn their place. They must engage. They must make these people grateful that they took the time to come out. I live for the phrase: “Wow, that was actually really fun.” They say this with surprise. “I’m actually going to recommend this friends.”

The “actually” says it all. Like they can’t believe they’d recommend art to friends. For fun.

Makes me giddy all over.

A Minor Crisis

As a professional writer of many years, and now an MFA-holding professional writer, I’ve been grumbling about whether anyone even reads anything I write, or anything anyone writes. I’ve been spending time with more filmmakers and musicians lately, and it’s astounding how popular these media are by comparison. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a musician or filmmaker; all arts are tough. I’m just saying that, if the TV is turned on in a sports bar, half the people are passively watching it. Even if these people are drunk or in the middle of conversation, and the TV’s are playing an old episode of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” and there’s no sound or even captions, people will still watch the moving images. In contrast, most people will buy a book only if they’re in an airport and their iPhone fell in a toilet.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am exceedingly grateful. I love being a writer, and I take great pride in my work, and if I’m in the doldrums, it’s largely seasonal. Pittsburgh winters are positively awful; a Steel City February is kind of like Siberia, without all of the adorable sables or Dr. Zhivago or leaping horsemen or even occasional sunlight.

But writing continues to be a tough business. My novel has been read and rejected by five agents, as of last December. I recently arranged a reading at Awesome Books, a wonderful local bookstore, and of the 25 people who said they would come, and the 40 people who “maybe” would come, a total of 10 people actually showed up, all of them very close friends. The irony is surreal: As an amateur photographer and videographer with remedial equipment and experience, I have been receiving interesting offers left and right; as a writer with several books and numerous awards, I’ve been getting the same assignments from the same publications for a while, or else my queries are rejected or ignored. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

This was the kicker: I queried Bicycle Times with an offer to contribute. Usually a writer submits a specific idea, but I wanted to introduce myself and start a conversation about future assignments. After all, I have written about cycling, travel, solo sports and the environment for over 10 years. I have produced video and shot photo essays on these topics. And Bicycle Times is headquartered in Pittsburgh, like seven miles from my front door.

No response. Not even an automated response. Not even a rejection. Nada. It was like I hadn’t even written them. This is a company that actively seeks freelancers. I really, really want to write for them. The marriage of skills and interests is absolutely perfect. Still, only silence.

Panacea!

So I went to Word Circus.

And it was awesome.

There is nothing in life so sweet as (a) expecting the worst and (b) finding the best. Lorena “Lo” Williams, the new emcee, was full of vim and good humor. She had nice things to say about all her readers, but she didn’t waste any time. Meanwhile, filmmaking students at Chatham had the chance to show their short documentaries; each film was beautifully shot and covered an interesting topic, from an Iraqi-veteran-become-firefighter to a couple of competitive pinball players. I am friends with every reader, and I have never heard them read so well, nor present such excellent work.

A fold-out table was pregnant with snacks, and each reader was introduced by a favorite Eighties song (well, that was the idea, but there were some technical issues). At intermission, buskers in elaborate outfits wove through the crowd.

And, might I add, the place was packed.

At times like this, I feel like George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life—full of life and warmth and happiness, suddenly bashful about his doubts. Yes, most readings suck. Yes, the writing biz is brutal. But at Word Circus, everything was going right. And although I hadn’t invented Word Circus on my own (even the name was coined by my friend Sarah Grubb), I felt a proprietary pride. Indeed, I felt rejuvenated. People actually cheered when the readers finished. They stood up and whistled, clapping their palms raw. The reading lasted nearly three hours, but nobody seemed to mind. And incredibly, most people stayed until the end.

I had been asked to take pictures, and I gladly did so. It was nice to use one art-form to celebrate another—what’s more, to use my secondary passion to celebrate my primary. Whatever happens this year, I thought, I hope to keep encouraging my colleagues’ work. One night of Word Circus added a little fuel to the fire. In a discontented winter, such fires burn twice as warmly.